It’s hard to believe I left Niger nearly three months ago! Since I have been back, I have received a lot of questions about the culture in Niger. So I thought I’d write about a few of the topics that I’ve been asked most about. For anyone in the Portland area wanting to learn more about Africa, the annual Portland African Film Festival is currently underway (ending the first weekend of March). It shows great films and they are all free! And a lot of people have asked me about how they can help out. Here is a link to donate to Peace Corps projects underway in Niger: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors. I have a lot of faith in the work Peace Corps does and a little bit of US dollars go a really long way in Niger!
But first an update… Niger is currently experiencing a coup that seemed pretty inevitable when we left. I am pleased that they are getting a change of power and hopeful that they’ll have democratic elections soon. Here is a great article on it from the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8524924.stm. As for my own personal update, I started a new job a few weeks ago, which I am enjoying so far. I bought my first home, which I’ll be moving into at the end of March. And I leave for a three week vacation in Morocco in a week from now! No complaints here!
So for those who want to learn more about Niger…
Children take the first name of their father as their last name. It was really confusing initially to differentiate between first and last names since we are used to American first and last names which sound so different. Another thing about names there is that Volunteers are given Hausa, Zarma or Arabic names from the host families upon arrival in Niger. Pronouncing American names can be tricky for Nigeriens so this makes it easier to integrate. While there, my name was Amina, which is the Arabic name of the mother of Mohamed.
I’ve been asked to say a few things in Hausa for people so I wanted to share a few of my favorite phrases.
“Ina zumna duniya?” This is a greeting that means “how do you sit in the world?” The response to this is always “sai hankori,” which means “have patience.” It shows the wise Hausa belief that you shouldn’t get too wrapped up in your current circumstances because they will always change.
“Ina ruwaku?” This literally means “where is your water?” but is used to tell people to mind their own business. In Niger, your water is your business.
In major cities, it is easy to get around using city taxis that are standard four door sedans. To move somewhere outside of a big city in Niger (it’s the same in much of Africa) you have to take a bush taxi. Niger has an interesting bus system and no trains. Traveling by bush taxi isn’t a very comfortable experience but sure teaches you a lot of patience. To catch a bush taxi, you need to go to a village’s tasha, which is where the bush taxis all load passengers. If in a small village, there will only be one bush taxi and in many cases, bush taxis are only available once a week on market days. If you are in a large city, you just have to ask around the tasha and find the car that is headed in your direction. Then you wait for sometimes a very long time for the bush taxi to get all of its passengers. The Nissan van-style bush taxis are called “dix-neufs,” which means 19 in French. This denotes that the taxis carry 19 passengers. BUT children and animals are not counted in this so you could have a goat next to you and a bundle of chickens at your feet and they don’t count as space. And there are usually more than 19 adults in those things anyway. Once they get enough passengers, the bush taxi gets going for a short period. The bush taxi will stop frequently to let people out and take on more passengers in villages. It will also stop when it breaks down, which often occurs. And it will stop for traditional prayer times so that all of the men can get out and pray together. There are several different types of bush taxis, depending on what type of road they travel on. If you’re sticking to the main highway, you will get a van or a sedan. If you are going to be on a dirt road, you get to ride in one of the open air trucks. I’ve stolen a picture from my dear friend Will to show what these look like:
You may be surprised that the most comfortable spots are on top of the cabin. My favorite spot on this type of bush taxi is where the man in sunglasses and the blue button up shirt is sitting. It is very neat to view Niger from that height while going along the road. I liked it because I always got lost in my thoughts of Africa from that view… although not too lost since it is important to be alert enough to not lose your grip and bounce off the car. Also, as a lady in a skirt, it takes a certain amount of maneuvering to keep your skirt down to not expose yourself, all while not losing your flip flops to the wind. It is surprisingly fun but usually means you’ll be sore for day or two since bouncing around on top of a metal car for two hours isn’t the most padded mode of transport.
Here is another photo from a bush taxi when I was sitting in the front seat:
It may not show a lot, but I like it.
Facial scarring is used in Niger to show what area a person is from. The patterns will be scarred on a child’s cheeks around the age of 7. Only the boys are scarred with the traditional local patterns. Girls are sometimes given “beauty scars” which are single vertical or diagonal lines below either eyes. Scarring is more widespread outside of large cities but is becoming less common as Niger is increasingly exposed to the Western world. Facial scarring was particularly strong in my village. When I told Nigeriens in Maradi or Niamey my village name they would usually pad at their face to indicate its reputation for heavy scarring. In my village facial scarring was further used to indicate which family you came from. For instance, my friend Hamza’s family had a very broad pattern that went all the way up into the skin around the eyes. I could always tell who his relatives were. Writing this out makes it kind of sound like child abuse but I don’t think that facial scarring is a bad thing… it’s just something that they do in their culture. After all, where did our practice of ear piercing come from? You can’t really see the scarring in my photos so I’ve borrowed a photo from my friend Liz to show this:
My village had several mosques ranging from nicely painted ones with minarets to rocks pushed together in a line in the sand to create the outline of a building. The mosques are only used for prayer and they are only for men. In some Islamic countries, women are allowed into mosques, but not in Niger. Men go to the mosque five times a day to pray, beginning before sunrise around 5 am, and ending after sunset around 8 pm. In a country with few clocks, the imam (leader of a mosque) calls out to the men when it is time to come to the mosque and pray. To make this more effective, a lot of mosques have loud speakers. There is a traditional Arabic call that is used in all Islamic countries, which is sung out by the imam for a few minutes. It begins with “Allahu akbar,” which means, “God is great.” Some imams are better callers than others… some calls sound beautiful and others make you want to whack the loud speaker off the building. I lived across the street from a mosque which was unfortunate during the 5 am prayer calls. But the loud speaker broke after my first week there so then I just had the nice quiet call of the imams own voice for the rest of my time! I really miss the prayer calls. The calls were a great reminder that I was someplace different. I also like the idea of them that they are an appeal to people to congregate and socialize. You cannot underestimate the influence of Islam on Niger… it is the single most important identity of their culture.
So that’s a little bit more for everyone on what it’s like in Niger! I am so excited to get to Morocco and experience a different Islamic country in Africa. I’ve been keeping in touch with my fellow volunteers who left as well as those who stayed and it sounds like everyone is happy with their decision. And I know I will do Peace Corps again at some point and I look forward to that. The biggest thing Niger taught me is that I am lucky, lucky, lucky… a thousand times over!